Burundi’s servant church

Published May 1, 2009

IT IS POSSIBLE for a family of five to live on 4,000 Burundian francs ($4) per day, according to Josephine Bigari.

It would simply mean skipping breakfast, having no bread, no meat, and no milk for tea, she said. If you have no money to buy food, you depend on credit.

Bigari, who handles the HIV-AIDS program of the diocese of Bujumbura, is aware that many Burundians are in this situation. “Many are in debt,” she said.

Her three young children realize that they are luckier than most in that they’re part of Burundi’s tiny middle class; they’re eager to help. Bigari recalled that, when the diocese distributed mosquito nets, Pamela, 15, asked if a classmate could have one. “She has also asked me what we could do to help her classmates who have no lunch.”

Bigari points to the church’s mission of “being there for others” as a huge influence.

Edmond Bayisabe was 15 when the civil war broke out in Burundi in 1993.

He recalls the highly-charged atmosphere in his high school in Matana. Hutu, Tutsi and Twa students eyed each other with suspicion, mirroring the volatile situation across Burundi.

The young Bayisabe was a “born-again Christian” in high school. Like a good born-again Christian, “I had to like and respect everybody and make friends from each ethnic group,” he said. “This was a risky choice.” In classrooms and dormitories “some students chose to sit together or to share the bedroom according to their ethnic groups, but the Christian community challenged the situation and acted differently.”

Today, 16 years later, Bayisabe is still working for change as youth co-ordinator of the diocese of Bujumbura. During Burundi’s civil war, from 1993 to 2005, many young people were mobilized and trained to fight. Today the church is retraining them for peace.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Bujumbura in 2005, he marveled at the church’s crucial work. In a commentary published by The Independent, he wrote, “The Mothers’ Union is one of those Anglican agencies regarded with a rather patronizing affection by large sections of the British public – part of the warm beer, church bells and cricket-on-the-green image of a rather tired Englishness. This is an image that is ludicrously wide off the mark,” he said. “In much of Africa, it is quite simply the most effective agency for the empowerment of women. Burundi is a majority Roman Catholic country, with international aid agencies at work; but the Mothers’ Union remains an important player. Its creation of a network of literacy schemes, of programs for sex education and nutritional advice, of training in conflict resolution, of micro-finance projects and trading initiatives, all have immense potential.”

He acknowledged that faith groups “are not problem-free” – in Africa they have sometimes been “slow to condemn the tribalism that scars so many societies; they have not been immune to corruption, and they have been defensive about outside challenges over transparency and accountability.” Still, “they have credibility” and have access to more areas than most, he said.

The Paris Club of creditor nations recently cancelled US $134.3 million of debt owed by Burundi to its members, citing its “determination to implement a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy and an ambitious economic program.”

But the fact remains that outside aid and investments hinge on Burundi’s capacity to prove its stability.

Religious communities have been filling in the vacuum.

Burundi has four religious groups: Roman Catholics (62 per cent), Protestants (5 per cent), ancestral believers (23 per cent), and Muslims (10 per cent).

“Before independence, Burundi’s Christian elite played a big role in the formation of political parties, and that influence lasted into the post-colonial period,” said Bujumbura Bishop Pie Ntukamazina, in a 2007 report to the Anglican Peace and Justice Network. During the country’s subsequent social-political crises, they were involved in the resolution of these conflicts, “even at the cost of their lives.” He cited the assassinations of Catholic Archbishop Joachim Ruhuna, and the papal nuncio to Burundi, Bishop Michael Courtney, in 1996 and 2003, respectively.

The killings have underscored the reality that not everyone is happy with the church’s activist role. Churches support government recovery efforts, but they have also been clear that it must benefit all. Outspoken church leaders have blamed the genocide during the war on politicians “seeking power and wealth.”

Bujumbura is not Burundi, but it offers a glimpse of the challenges the nation faces.The city is a study in contrasts – poised for change but also mired in the tragic consequences of war and the unjust structures of power. There are newer, bigger homes with high walls protected by barbed wires; there are lavish wedding receptions with men in impeccable suits and smartly-coiffed women in colourful saris. Yet, on that same street corner, clusters of men, women and adolescents in well-worn clothes and dusty slippers sit idly, vacant expressions on their faces. Most are refugees and demobilized soldiers who have poured in from the rural areas in search of something better.

“We’re very worried that the peace process can be reversible,” acknowledged Pie Ntavyohanyuma, president of Burundi’s lower house of parliament, during a meeting with Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who visited Burundi Feb. 12 to 16. “We saw what happened in Kenya and Zimbabwe, so we’ll go about our affairs with a lot of prudence…”

Archbishop Hiltz called his visit a “humbling” experience. Burundians, he said, were thankful not just for the financial support. “What was really most valuable to them was the fact, they said, that ‘you’ve come all this way to see us, to be with us.’ ” he said. “It says a lot about the value of such visits. It’s not just one part of the world sending off money to another part of the world. It’s people really caring for people, caring enough to meet them and to listen to their stories.”

He remembered a conversation that he had with Bishop Ntukamazina about how they can’t have Holy Communion in so many places because they can’t afford the bread and wine. “And we just take it for granted,” said Archbishop Hiltz.

The visit to Burundi “puts all our controversies in perspective; our debates over sexuality pale in comparison to the pressing needs of people,” he said. “You see a place like (Burundi) and you walk away and you think, ‘the Gospel is at work here; it’s really having an impact on people. Their lives are being changed by the good news and it’s not just what they do on Sunday when they worship, it’s everything that they’re doing beyond the walls of the church.” He added: “You’re moved by their faith and commitment and they just look at you and say, ‘This is the Lord’s doing, it’s not our doing. It’s the work of the Lord among us.”

Archbishop Hiltz said he needed to hear that message, “and I suspect that I’m not alone.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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